The Bear and the Nightingale
by Katherine Arden
Ebook, 336 pages
Published January 17th, 2017 by Del Rey
At the edge of the Russian wilderness, winter lasts most of the year and the snowdrifts grow taller than houses. But Vasilisa doesn’t mind—she spends the winter nights huddled around the embers of a fire with her beloved siblings, listening to her nurse’s fairy tales. Above all, she loves the chilling story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon, who appears in the frigid night to claim unwary souls. Wise Russians fear him, her nurse says, and honor the spirits of house and yard and forest that protect their homes from evil.
After Vasilisa’s mother dies, her father goes to Moscow and brings home a new wife. Fiercely devout, city-bred, Vasilisa’s new stepmother forbids her family from honoring the household spirits. The family acquiesces, but Vasilisa is frightened, sensing that more hinges upon their rituals than anyone knows.
And indeed, crops begin to fail, evil creatures of the forest creep nearer, and misfortune stalks the village. All the while, Vasilisa’s stepmother grows ever harsher in her determination to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for either marriage or confinement in a convent.
As danger circles, Vasilisa must defy even the people she loves and call on dangerous gifts she has long concealed—this, in order to protect her family from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse’s most frightening tales.
It took me almost 10 month and 67 books, but I finally found my book of the year.
And it’s not without a reason. This book is truly magical. The lyrical prose wove a story so beautiful it’s like I’m reading an original fairytale. It makes the magic feel real, the creatures are alive. It brought to life the harshness of northern winter, the richness of the Kremlin, the sadness and despair of the people. I was so immersed in this book that I stayed up all night and continue to read it at class the next day. All so that I could stay within the world Arden has created until the end.
The characters are also one of the reason why I really enjoyed the book. Vasilisa is an amazing main character. She’s not perfect: she’s curious to the point of being nosy, she’s brave to the point of having a death wish, she’s impulsive to the point of being foolish, and she’s stubborn to the point of being prideful. But she’s also kind and care towards her people and family, she will defend them to her last breath, and she has this spark of life that Arden captures perfectly in her writing.
Despite my dislike towards Anna, I feel bad for her. All she wanted was to go into a convent and be at peace, yet her father sold her like a mare. She has to live her life half mad by anger and fear, and it ended up eating her inside out. On the other hand, I’m really fond of Potyr, Dunya, Aloshka, and Sasha. Dunya, for being the mother, grandmother, and nurse for the children; Potyr for doing his best for everything; Aloshka and Sasha for their love towards Vasilisa.
Also, can we talk about Morozko? I don’t feel too deeply about him other that curiosity, but I think that’s Arden’s intention. He come and goes as the wind, his behavior is cold as snow, and yet, he cares about the human. I need to know more about him! Also, Vasilisa and Morozko? I APPROVE.
One thing I must not forget to mention is the amazing interaction of Vasilisa’s family. The siblings truly love and would die protecting each other, even the annoying Kolya. Even with Irina, who is their stepsibling and Anna hating them, the siblings still love and baby her. Even Potyr tried his best with his family and defend his children as best as he could.
The plot of the books was divided into 3 parts: the time before and Vasilisa’s childhood, her teenage years and her interactions with people around her, and her embracing that she’s different. The first part felt a bit slow and mundane, but at the end of that part, that’s where things started to feel magical and it increases until the end. However, I feel like Bear is not fleshed out fully that while the stakes are high, he never felt truly threatening for me. And the ending felt too convinient for me. I expected more battle and chaos than that.
Side note, this book makes me want to reread DEATHLESS. I didn’t really like it (it wasn’t the right time to read a novel titled DEATHLESS), but reading this make me realize how much I enjoyed Russian tales and how similar both books are. However, I feel like DEATHLESS is like a summer heat, while this book is like a cold winter snow (excuse my bad metaphors). But truly, I really want to re-read it.
THE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE is the perfect book for people who like to read Russian retellings. It captures the coldness and the hardships of Russian wilderness and the opulence of the kingdom, with amazing and lovely cast of characters. But most importantly, it captures the wildly alive, beautiful magic of Russian tales with its creatures for us to enjoy.